If you are reading this, the odds are high that you are a member of the animal kingdom: phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, species Homo sapiens. We all know this, even if we’ve forgotten our high school biology. So why did so many people get so angry when President Trump said “These are animals” in response to a remark about a gang called MS-13?
Obviously, because he wasn’t just stating a simple fact; he was using those words to demote those people from the human race. And by the transitive property, to demote immigrants from the empathy and consideration that decent people extend to other human beings. If A equals B, and B equals C . . .
Trump supporters dispute this interpretation. They say it’s clear, in context, that he was talking about the gang, not Hispanics or immigrants. And that given the savagery of MS-13’s violence, it’s hardly unreasonable to call its members inhuman.
These defenders have half a point; there is a plausible reading of Trump’s words that refers to the gang, or similar criminals, not to immigrants in general. But in light of Trump’s history, that surface reading isn’t enough.
In that broader context, those words are loathsomely loaded and coded. Not least because Trump’s remark did not come in response to a question about gangs — it launched from a glancing reference to MS-13 during a more general statement by a local law enforcement officer about the difficulty of reconciling federal immigration enforcement with state and local sanctuary policies. And in the succeeding days, he has seemed obsessed with repeating the word “animals” every time the social media storm threatened to die down.
It’s instructive to compare Trump’s harsh language about immigrant “animals” with his response to a direct question about a different group of people behaving badly. After white nationalists staged marches in Charlottesville, culminating in a death, Trump was at pains to distinguish the Nazis from the “people in that group that were there to innocently protest.”
He’s less careful when immigrants are involved. Immigrants actually have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans , yet Trump sure seems to spend an awful lot of time talking about the small fraction who are criminals. And he doesn’t make much effort to distinguish them from the overwhelming majority of immigrants who are just here to make a law-abiding life for themselves and their families.
Trump isn’t the only person who does this sort of thing, although he may be particularly susceptible to situational outrage. Indeed, the “animals” controversy illustrates a broader truth: It’s a common human failing to characterize outgroups by the worst examples we can find while dismissing our own bad apples as isolated minorities who have nothing to do with the rest of us.
Consider how conservatives feel, for example, when the left focuses disproportionate energy on the tiny portion of the population that belongs to the alt-right or to white-nationalist groups. Sometimes writers come right out and say that these two minuscule factions represent the final flowering of conservatism’s decades-long plan to Make Racism Great Again. But often they just obsessively focus on these outliers as if they constituted the actual majority of conservative voters. Conservatives have no trouble at all discerning the implicit message: that these are the most representative parts of the right, and that therefore — by the transitive property — all conservatives are racists.
Or consider the lingering indignation over Barack Obama’s suggestion that in some small towns in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, where the economy has been devastated by de-industrialization, some people “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
Now there are some people who turn to religion, or nativism, simply because they are angry and despairing; there are some people who turn to environmentalism or socialism for those same reasons. Probably some of them live in small Midwestern towns. But Obama wasn’t making an abstract observation about human psychology; he was implying that while Democrats come to their views through thoughtful reflection, the Republican rubes simply react to environmental stimulus, like amoebas. In the context of broad cosmopolitan disdain for red-state America, the insult was clear. It’s not as reprehensible as calling people animals. But it was plenty bad enough to justifiably enrage the right.
Rhetoric is like a camera lens; what you focus on tells your audience what the most salient information is. If most of your conversation about conservatives involves the KKK, it’s reasonable for a viewer to think you’re telling them that conservatism and the KKK are roughly synonymous. And if, when discussing immigration, you take every opportunity to point the camera at terrorists, criminal gangs and rapists . . . well, the conclusion goes without saying. But not without being heard.